Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity

Charities can be potent mixes of passion, politics and penury. For CIOs working in the sector it can make for a challenging environment

The Road to Salvation

It was April Fool's Day 2005 when Wayne Bajema took on the role of IT manager for the Salvation Army in Sydney. It was, he notes, a unique challenge, and radically different from his previous employer, a financial management firm, where to be a client "you needed a minimum of $150,000".

Although Bajema rose to the top of the IT pile in 2005 he had first joined the Salvation Army in 2001. "I wanted a new challenge. I was looking for something different. At the financial services firm the whole purpose in life was to develop wealth. Then it went through a takeover and the new management structure was far more predatory. I thought there had to be something more.

"The Salvation Army does a huge amount of work for the Australian community. You get the feel-good factor that you are contributing to the community. It is quite sobering to see how lucky most of us are."

Although the financial institution and the Salvation Army have radically different goals — the financial company is there to make money, while the Salvation Army's mission statement is to help people — Bajema says the technical challenges are quite similar. Maybe, but meeting them can be particularly challenging in a charity where money is scarce and the need for computing dollars competes with the need for dollars to feed and clothe people.

However, according to Bajema the greatest difference comes from the people using the technology. He now works with people who are not trying to make money; rather, they are trying to make a difference by delivering services to the community. "The people in those functions are very different from what is expected in the corporate sector," he adds.

Not surprisingly the people he now supports with information systems are "more creative and emotionally intelligent" than people in the financial services business. "Their life is about helping others rather than accumulating wealth. It makes it more difficult to deliver IT because they don't have the business grounding.

"Trying to get them to clearly define what they want is very hard," he says. This is compounded by the often transient nature of programs that the Salvation Army is involved in. "Maybe it's a government funded project, for example to run a women's counselling service in North Sydney and the government gives a 12-month funding. It makes it more difficult because of the transient nature of the service," Bajema explains.

Anchoring the attempts to create useful information systems is the Salvation Army Mission Information Service or SAMIS system, which maintains the group's client data — tracking homeless clients or those going through drug rehabilitation — and also keeps tabs on supplies such as blankets and skills. A good core data system is important, says Bajema, because the nature of the people who use the Salvation Army's services can be quite transient. "They might start in Sydney and pop up in Queensland."

Besides keeping track of clients and their needs it can be challenging to find IT staff. "When you work for a charitable organization you do take a cut in salary. It might sound haughty and contrived but there is the satisfaction of doing something for the community." Bajema runs a team of 21 IT staff who provide the information support for 4000 employees.

Budget constraints do not just affect salary levels, they also have an effect on the lifespan of computers. Bajema says a typical lifespan for a Salvos PC is four years and many more go on for five or six. "We may have a rural office and their budget is $3000 a year; if you want them to spend $1500 on a new computer that's a lot of money," he explains.

Although it may be tempting to try to help out with the donation of some equipment, Bajema says that while the Salvation Army is appreciative of offers of help, it doesn't want to take on equipment at the end of its life. Nevertheless, the Salvos stores do take in some old PCs to resell. Older computers are generally used in the training networks that the organization operates to help give unemployed people work skills.

There are enormous hurdles in creating and maintaining the organization's information systems but then, as Bajema explains, being CIO for the Salvos is a "unique challenge" that he clearly relishes.

Helping Hands

Keeping systems simple and stable has proved the key to delivering the information systems needed to run The Spastic Centre in NSW. A standardized Microsoft platform and operating environment has kept costs in check and reduced the need for highly specialized and expensive IT staff, according to IT manager Joe Perricone.

"One key strategy has been to consolidate equipment as much as possible," says Perricone. "Technology has changed a great deal over the past few years, but it has taken longer for users to grasp how we consolidate functions, share devices and utilize databases more effectively. Therefore the adjoining emphasis has been placed on communication, implementing FAQs, letting staff know what's going on with IT and whether IT can assist with processes."

According to Perricone, because the standard systems are able to run the software needed to support the processes, it has been possible to keep at bay demands for new equipment for new equipment's sake rather than because there is a justified need for it. He is a man of the "If it works don't change it" brigade.

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